Prepared for the Joint Services’ Conference on ProfessionalEthics XXII

Springfield, Virginia

28 January 2000


(*This paper neither carries nor implies the endorsement of the Department of  Defense, of the U.S. Air Force, of  Air University, or of the Air War College.)




James H. Toner

Professor of International Relations & Military Ethics

Department of Leadership and Ethics

Air War College





Christopher H. Toner

Doctoral Student

Department of Philosophy

University of Notre Dame





            Love, and do as you will.


            Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.

                                    --St. Augustine (354-430)



Zerubbabel's Speech and the Death of New York City


            In the First Book of Esdras in the Deuterocanon of the Catholic Bible, guards of the Emperor Darius engage in a debate as to what is the strongest thing in the world.  After hearing arguments for wine, for women, and for the emperor, the only named guard, Zerubbabel, puts forward Truth as the strongest thing in the world:


There is not the slightest injustice in truth.  You will find injustice in wine, the emperor, women, all human beings in all they do, and in everything else.  There is no truth in them; they are unjust and they will perish.  But truth endures and is always strong; it will continue to live and reign forever.  Truth shows no partiality or favoritism; it does what is right, rather than what is unjust or evil.  Everyone approves what truth does; its decisions are always fair.  Truth is strong, royal, powerful, and majestic forever. Let all things praise the God of truth!

The emperor proclaims Zerubbabel the winner.

            Justice and truth are apparently inseparable.  To be just, one must both know and be disposed to bring about the realization of the “practical truth,” that is, the truth about what should be done here and now.  But often this truth is difficult to discern.  Consider this scenario, taken from the novel Fail-Safe:  the United States, by mistake, has launched a nuclear bomber attack on the Soviet Union.  The American President appeals to the Soviet leader to absorb without retaliation the nuclear strike on Moscow.  The Soviet leader informs the President that such a course is politically and militarily impossible; he must and will retaliate.  World War III has begun--by mistake.  The President issues a macabre command to a U.S. Air Force Officer.  The officer is to fly an American bomber over New York City and drop one nuclear weapon on the city, killing millions of his countrymen.  In the process, however, World War III will be averted because this will be evidence to the Soviet leader that the strike on Moscow was, in fact, a mistake. The American officer follows the order and drops the bomb, killing millions.  New York City and Moscow are gone in nuclear bursts; but World War III is averted.  Did the President act prudently? justly? truthfully?  Did the Air Force officer carry out his true duty?  In less extreme circumstances, is it permissible to lie?  to steal?  to kill in a manner that would normally be murder?  Zerubbabel may be correct that Truth is the most powerful thing in the world, but this does not help us if we cannot make out what the practical truth of the matter is, if we cannot discern, that is, what justice demands.

            A traditional answer has it that we have been told what justice demands--that it was clearly engraved for us on the two tables of the Ten Commandments.  Such rules as these (do not kill, do not steal) are surely such that to ignore them is morally to fail.  The problem is that rules and duties can sometimes conflict or at least seem to conflict.  It can seem as though justice demands two incompatible things.

            But Christianity, here in concert with the great philosophical traditions of the west, has never seen ethics as simply a matter of rule-following.  Commenting on Christ’s affirmation of the Commandments in Matthew, Pope John Paul II tells us that the Commandments are not only “rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life.”[1]  Christian moral tradition sees rules as the foundation of a good life, a foundation which must be built upon by development and exercise of the virtues, including the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.[2]  It is the possession and exercise of these virtues which allow us to live according to the spirit as well as the letter of the law, and which allow us to live full and meaningful lives, lives rooted in being, knowing, and doing what we should, in accordance with the practical truth.  In cases of conflicting duties or competing rules, it is the virtues in general and prudence in particular that guide us through the maze and lead us to the action to be done here and now.

            Now, what we have said so far about being just amounts roughly to the following advice:  “Be prudent, and all will be well.”  We hope to be a bit more helpful than that.  After a brief survey of kinds of ethical theory, we will present and argue for what we take to be the true one (which might be called universalism or moderate absolutism), and put forward a model for developing a reflective awareness of the state of one’s character, and possibly for finding areas in need of adjustment or development.

Ethical Theories

            In ethics, the school of thought known as Intuitionism holds that, in every situation of moral consequence, we must consult our conscience in order to discover the ethically right thing to do.  There are certain obligations which are reasonably self evident to people of "ordinary sense and understanding"; these can be called prima facie duties.  Keeping promises, for example, is a matter of fundamental fairness. But prima facie duties impose actual requirements only if there is no stronger obligation involved. When duties conflict--and the conflict of duties is a central concern of military ethics--we must do what best satisfies all our obligations, or failing that, the most important of them first.  This, in turn, is a function of judgment or intuition.  But however important such intuitions may be, military ethics cannot be based solely upon flashes of ethical insight.  Experience plainly teaches that different persons have different intuitions about right and wrong.

            Over the course of years, the ethical insights that we human beings have tend to become "rules," "norms," or "principles."  These are the "tried-and-true" concepts which we know in such forms as "Honesty is the best policy"; "Don't lie, cheat, or steal"; or "Let your word be your bond."  These nostrums amount to the moral currency with which we deal every day, and it would be foolish to ignore the accumulated experience of our forebears in deliberating about how to act.  Indeed, this experience, and our upbringing in the light of it, helps to shape our intuitions.  There is a symbiosis, then, between the "flashes of insight" known to intuitionists and rules of conduct favored by deontologists (who customarily resort to such rules as tests of the rightness or goodness of actions).  The rules provide us general guidance, but when they are silent or seemingly in conflict, we depend upon our ethical insight to guide us (and it is one of the chief functions of the virtue of prudence to inform our insight, and to ensure that our intuitions are correct).

            Now, in moral science, as in physical science, there are some basic truths.  If the law of gravity is basic in physical science, so is the law of truth-telling basic in moral science.[3]  But just as gravity can be overcome, so can truth-telling (a law’s being overcome does not mean that it is "canceled" or that it is not really a law).  Are there, then, times we should lie, or steal?  Are there times to commit murder?  The argument below is so critical to the field of military ethics that we will take it step by step.

            1. Over the course of centuries, the thinking and living of the human race has produced for us a treasury of moral knowledge, ethical principles, and guides to rightful conduct that we ignore at our peril.  The moral intuitions (and some would add religious Revelation) of our forebears have created this deposit of moral knowledge, this corpus of rules.

            2. From this body of rules has developed a school of ethics known as deontology, which in essence holds that we have a duty to perform certain tasks measured by these rules or principles, regardless of consequences.[4]

            3. The school of ethics known as teleology holds that one must determine what to do on the basis of the probable consequences of one's choice.  Utilitarians constitute one species of teleologist,[5] and argue that that action is right or good which brings about the greatest happiness (by which they mean pleasure or preference satisfaction) of the greatest number; and this can be called the principle of utility.  The appeal of this school comes from the common intuition that, in some circumstances, where the consequences of following a particular moral rule would be drastic, an exception must be warranted.  After teaching at a war college for ten years, one of us will testify that most military officers determine right from wrong on the basis of a utilitarian, cost-benefit analysis. We regard this approach as perhaps occasionally necessary as a kind of moral shorthand, but never of itself sufficient.

            That utilitarianism alone is insufficient for military ethics is obvious:  our forces, in deciding whether or not to conduct an ambush, do not worry about whether, since the enemy is more numerous, our winning might not bring about less overall happiness than our losing.  At the very least, we must conjoin a principle of utility with the basic political science question of “Cui bono?” (whose good?--that is, who stands to gain, and who stands to lose?).  Answers to this question, which in effect limit the scope of the principle of utility, range from “my good” or “my unit’s good” to “my country’s good” or to even greater levels of generality.  In the military, the question is generally answered for us by our mission, by our operations order, by our standard operating procedures.

            4.  Yet if all ethical matters can be reduced to utility calculations as circumscribed by our answer to the question of cui bono, then ethics is a function of arithmetic.  For since our answer will always be our good, at whatever level of generality or inclusiveness, justice will amount to little more than the interest of the stronger.  But surely ethics is more than figuring out who wins and loses in particular circumstances.  Are there any rules which always apply, regardless of circumstances?

            5.  Our answer is that, yes, there are some rules that always apply, among them these:  One must always try to do good and to avoid evil, and one must always seek to reason well about what is to be done (that is, one must always seek to be prudent, to find the Truth of which Zerubbabel spoke).  One must always seek to be just, to be brave, and to be temperate.  There are and can be no exceptions to those precepts, no matter how much utility is at stake.  To virtually every other rule that one can stipulate, however, there are exceptions, exemptions, or overrides.[6]

            Absolutism insists that there are transcendent principles which answer every possible situation in life regardless of culture or consequence.  Ethical or Cultural Relativism, by contrast, insists that truth and moral conduct depend upon one's society, station in life, or situation--and that "principles" are relative to time and place.  Here we propose a new term--universalism[7]--to describe the view of one who leans to absolutism (as all religious believers must) and who accepts some absolutes (as those in the previous paragraph), but who nevertheless understands that certain events may compel departure from principles which would otherwise be binding.  Consider this stock example: Suppose you are Polish and a Warsaw resident in 1939, and you are harboring two Jews in your basement.  An SS officer knocks on the door, asking you whether you have seen any Jews.  May you lie to protect the Jews?

   ŸThe relativist--or utilitarian--would lie.  Circumstances and probable outcomes dictate his course of action.

   ŸThe absolutist--knowing that lying is wrong--will tell the truth if he speaks, because lying is always wrong.  Circumstances and probable outcomes are irrelevant.

   ŸThe universalist may lie, reasoning that, in this troubling circumstance in which prima facie duties conflict, he must resolve the conflict in the most discriminating manner possible.

            The relativist chooses as his circumstances may require; the absolutist chooses as a universal rule may require; the universalist chooses according to circumstance, intuition and insight, rules, and reasoned judgment.  Notice that the just decision flows from practical wisdom or prudence.  That is why, among the cardinal virtues, prudence is first, and justice is second.  Circumstances and outcomes matter; there are flashes of insight and "gut reactions" which should not be discounted; we do know some things, and we have developed some rules.  But all these must be filtered through our education, our experience, our reason, our faith.  For universalists, ethical decisions can be wrenching and painful; but they are not released from taking action.  "Paralysis by analysis" is not an option.  When action is required and decisions are needed, universalists deliberate about what to do based upon the underlying principle of military ethics:  Always choose the greatest good for the greatest number--up to a point.

            But this is not an appeal to or on behalf of utilitarianism.[8]  Military officers--indeed, most of us--can sometimes wisely use the idea of choosing between or among alternatives on the basis of "the good of the many outweighs the good of the few or of the one."  But there are some things so solemn and so sacred that such efforts at arithmetic ethics or mathematical morality are, of themselves, inadequate.  There are times that we can and must say that, regardless of the consequences, we cannot do this or that action.  In other words, as we will see in detail below, there are points beyond which we will not go and certain lines which we will not cross.  It is the virtue of prudence that allows us to discern these sacred points.

            6. As we will suggest in the concluding section of this paper, universalism (which focuses upon the prudential habit of choosing well in situations where obligations conflict) allows us to speak, not only of good outcomes and judicious rules, but of good people.  People do not exist for rules; rules exist for people.[9]


Dueling Duties

            In the profession of arms, soldiers frequently, and sometimes dramatically, encounter conflicting obligations.  What obligation, after all, can carry greater significance than the command "Thou shalt not kill"?  Yet the soldier, when not killing the enemy, is preparing to do precisely that.  How, therefore, can soldiers be just or participate in justice?  Soldiers must constantly weigh and balance competing claims upon their consciences.  We call these competing claims "dueling duties."

            But the very notion of competing or dueling duties suggests that there are no absolutes having unrivaled ownership of the soldier's conscience.  A number of people, reacting to this statement that there are few absolute obligations upon the soldier, will dismiss universalism as mere "relativism."  Such assessments are mistaken.  A number of years ago, Professor Malham M. Wakin suggested that "the more human actions we attempt to incorporate under a single principle, the less specific the principle can be; absolute moral principles are necessarily vague."  He then makes a critical point:  "[W]e should note that if principles really are absolute . . . , they could never be in conflict with each other since each must be obeyed in all possible circumstances."  Wakin continues:

            Clearly, those moral obligations dealing with human act-types, like truth-telling, promise-keeping, preservation of life, respect for the property of others, and so on, are not absolute obligations.  Does that mean that they are relative obligations to be observed only when we find it expedient to do so?  Certainly not.[10]  Rather it is the case that we could best refer to these types of moral obligations by use of another term; . . . let us call them "universal" obligations. . . .  Ought they always to be observed?  No. Then they cannot be absolutes.  Can they conflict?  Yes.  Then they cannot be absolutes.  Are they sufficiently arbitrary to be ignored whenever one is in a different society or whenever it is convenient or expedient to do so?  No.  Then they cannot be relative principles in either the cultural or most subjective sense.  Universal obligations of this sort hold for all human beings (they are not subjectively or culturally relative) but not in all possible circumstances (they are not absolute).  They hold in analogous sets of circumstances and they may conflict with each other.[11]

Let us return to Warsaw and the citizen deciding if he should tell the Nazis the truth about the Jews he is harboring in his basement.  If telling the truth is an absolute ("free from any restriction, limitation, or exception"), one's duty is to give away the Jews.[12]  Now listen to the counsel of a religious text:  "The right to the communication of the truth is not  unconditional." And:  "No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it."[13]

            Now imagine--in a scene from Victor Hugo (1802-1885)--a miserable, starving man desperate for food for his family and for himself. As a parent, he must try to feed his family, but there is no work and no one will give him so much as a crumb.  He steals a loaf of bread.  Should he be severely punished?   Again the religious text tells us that "There is no theft if . . . refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one's disposal the property of others."[14]

            Universalism counsels us that when action is necessary, one must act to serve the greater good insofar as he is able to discern it.  The greater good in Warsaw is to lie.  The greater good for Hugo's character is to steal.  But to say "Always do the greater good," while we think necessary advice, is not sufficient and is morally dangerous on that account.

            First, we are not sure there are ways to measure well when we "weigh" alternatives.  Second, even if we can choose the greater good, there must be some things we would be unwilling to do even after making our utilitarian assessment.  One of us spoke recently about military ethics to the Class of 1999 at the Naval War College and used the following example to make a point.[15]  On vacation in a Latin American country, you are hiking in the mountains when you stumble across a band of revolutionaries who seize you.  You are glad to learn that they "like Americans" and are prepared to let you go unharmed after you perform a duty for them.  The revolutionaries have captured a dozen government soldiers, all of whom they plan to execute. But if you will shoot one of those soldiers in the head with a weapon having one bullet, they will promptly release the other eleven.  The soldiers themselves are willing to accept this, fearing that all twelve of them will be shot if you do not comply, and believing that the revolutionaries will in fact keep their word, letting you and them (at least eleven of them) go free after you have shot one of their number.  They are also willing, via a gambling procedure, to choose the one soldier to die.  "Always do the greater good!" Therefore, you shoot one soldier.  Right?

            Wrong.  You may not shoot the soldier.  One naval officer became quite adamant, insisting that she would, in fact, kill one hostage to save eleven others.  "They will all die unless you have the courage to kill one of them," insisting that "This is not murder; it's killing.  It’s what we in the military have to be ready to do all the time.”

            We do not agree.  Consider first this example, from the television show M*A*S*H.  A group of American soldiers and South Korean civilians in the Korean War are on a bus, which somehow has come behind enemy lines.  North Korean soldiers are known to be in the area. The bus is camouflaged, waiting for enemy patrols to pass by.  Then they can re-start the bus and find their way back to friendly forces.  But a South Korean woman has a crying baby, whose noise will give away their position.  "Shut the baby up! Shut the baby up!"  An American doctor on the bus, understandably anxious not to be captured, is desperately hoping the baby will be silenced.  Then the baby stops its crying.  The enemy patrols pass.  The bus returns to friendly lines.  The South Korean woman has suffocated her baby, and the Doctor, horrified at the incident and at his own reactions on the bus, has a nervous breakdown.  If the South Korean woman deliberately killed her child, was that not the right course of action?  No.

            Surely over the centuries we have learned that deliberately to take the life of an innocent person (that is, to commit murder) is simply wrong:  the baby is clearly innocent and the soldier in the mountains is innocent, too, in the context explained.  We must act for the greater good--but only up to a certain point.  Here we are again confronted with "dueling duties":  kill the baby (or the soldier) to save the bus passengers (or the other soldiers) versus not killing the baby or soldier but thereby risking capture of the passengers or the execution of the other soldiers.  One must not commit an act of murder.  We think that the precept prohibiting murder is another absolute; it is the only negative absolute that we will insist upon here.

            The religious concept is found at Romans 3:8 (where one reads that one may not do evil that good may come of it--the people who do such are "justly condemned").  Says a religious text:

It is . . . an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context.  There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object [--] such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery.  One may not do evil so that good may result from it.[16]


            What is different here from the earlier cases, where we suggested that lying or stealing for the greater good might be acceptable?  The chief difference is that human life, unlike modes of verbal communication and property rights, is not a human convention.  That is, it is not something that we invented to serve a certain purpose, and therefore it is not something that we can rightly judge to be valueless or dispensable in certain circumstances.

            Look at the matter in one other way.  The intuition at work behind the naval officer’s response is surely this:  we must trade one life for twelve (surely a bargain).  The problem is this:  it is not your life to trade.  You might as well suggest that I sell you a book borrowed from a library for $100.  It doesn’t matter how good a deal it is; it’s not my book!  You are not the lord of that soldier’s life (and neither is he, at least on most religious views).[17]

            Military ethics is all about dueling duties.  It is all about competing claims.  And it will never be easy to make clear moral choices.  On an intelligence trip behind enemy lines, you and your patrol are spotted by a civilian teenager.  Your work is compromised unless you kill him.  Can you?  No.[18]  You need information about enemy positions and strength.  You have two prisoners.  Can you torture and/or kill one to make the other talk?  No.[19]  You are on a bombing raid and there is the prospect of "collateral damage" (meaning destruction or death visited upon innocent people as you bomb legitimate targets).  Can you proceed?  Probably, yes, according to the Principle of Double Effect, which states that we may act in a way proportionate to a justified end, even if “collateral damage” is foreseen, provided that it is not intended.

            By the way, could the Air Force officer from the Fail-Safe scenario at the beginning of this chapter morally drop the nuclear weapon on New York City?  No.  Was it a legal order?  Probably.  Did the President mean well, trying to avert World War III.  Certainly. Good intentions, however, are not enough to justify unethical action.  The relativist might condone dropping the bomb on New York City on utilitarian grounds.  The universalist must condemn the action.[20]

The Nature of Justice . . . and of Evil

            "No one can escape from the fundamental questions: What must I do?  How do I distinguish good from evil?"[21]  Knowing the wise and the foolish, the just and the unjust, the virtuous and the vicious requires more than personal or idiosyncratic knowledge.  If the only frame of reference I have is my own background and experience, my viewpoint will necessarily be limited and egoistic.[22]  That is one reason we talk of the liberal arts as broadening, for good education should inculcate respect for moral tradition.[23]  Edmund Burke (1729-1797) in his Reflections on the Revolution in France put it this way:  "People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors."  The historical amnesiac will invariably be a moral illiterate; that is, those who have not read history forgo a great deal of knowledge and, presumably, wisdom which can be a helpful guide to present and future action.  But those who have little knowledge of history and little knowledge of ethics can hardly hope to distinguish justice from injustice.  As the philosopher John Kekes says: "If we know what our moral tradition and conception of the good life call for, then we know how to evaluate and judge complex situations. And then the exercise of courage, moderation, and justice becomes a matter of applying our knowledge to make the right effort, in the right circumstances, in the right way."[24]

            From Plato through John Rawls, philosophers have attempted to define justice.  Frequently, they settle upon the formula that justice is giving everyone his due.  As is so often true, words which suggest ideas of fundamental, eternal importance are inadequate in conveying the essence of their subject.  Justice, as a word, hardly conveys the full meaning of justice as a cardinal virtue. Perhaps both term and concept can be understood better if we briefly discuss the three basic forms of justice:  commutative, distributive, and legal.

            Commutative justice refers to fairness in exchanges or contracts between people (in such areas as wages and prices).  As the philosopher Josef Pieper wrote, "Every phase of man's communal life, in the family as well as in the state, is a compromise between the interests of individuals with equal rights."[25]  Distributive justice refers to the allocation of social resources, such as power and wealth.  General or legal or contributive justice pertains to what the citizen owes in fairness to the community.  We might think of these three types of justice as, first, what we owe to one another (fulfilling obligations and paying debts), what the community owes its citizens in accordance with their contributions and needs, and what we owe our society. Note that we are back to the fundamental concept of ethics:  owing.  We cannot be happy, fulfilled people leading lives of purpose and meaning unless we know and do what we ought to, unless we justly discharge our duties. The problem, as we have seen, is that duties can conflict. For example, we know that we must return property in good order to those from whom we borrow. Would that apply to returning a car promptly to its owner, even though he might be inebriated at the time, or to returning a hunting rifle to its owner at a time he is momentarily enraged at a neighbor?  What is the just thing to do?  What is the practical truth?

            When postmodernist thought tells us that there is no "Truth," it unavoidably contributes to a victory of the gutter. If there is no practical truth about what is to be done, then there can be no Evil (that which ought not be done).  And Evil--utter, unredeemed hate--surely exists. We shrink from identifying evil as such because we are afraid we being called "self righteousness," or "intolerant," or "old fashioned." Conscience (from the Latin for “with knowledge”) demands an understanding of moral tradition, of ethical principle, and of Truth.  No truth = no conscience; no conscience = no evil; no evil = no dilemma in bombing either Moscow or New York City; no dilemmas = no limitations in the conduct of war; therefore, justice does not exist, and war need have no limitations.

            From where does our conception of the practical truth, our conscience, come?  Because we are members of a state (a country or a "polis"), we learn a cultural and a moral tradition.  If that tradition is wise and just, we are likely, but of course not certain, to be increasingly wise and just.  So much of who we are depends upon where we have come from.  No one has put this better than Alasdair MacIntyre: "I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations.  These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point.  This is in part what gives my life its own moral particularity."[26]  We cannot expect to be reasonably just or truly free unless we are well educated about the problems of the past, the promises of the future, and the perils involved in both. 

            In a very real sense, all ethics is about perspective--being able to see both distance and depth.  Perspective demands that we examine issues from many standpoints, not just one.  Perspective demands broad vision.  We learn from perspective--as from art, which informs us about illusion and about the conflict of interpretation.  We are reminded of "dueling duties," about universalism, about the need to choose wisely and justly. We are members of a country; we may be members of the profession of arms--both shape and influence us.  They give us a "moral particularity."  We owe our country; we owe our profession and colleagues.  But we owe only up to a point.  There are things we cannot do for family, for profession, for country.  There are things which, if they would force us to cross the line (such as bombing New York City, such as killing innocent hostages), we must refuse to do.

            One hundred years ago, on 17 October 1899, Carl Schurz (1829-1906), an American editor, gave a speech in Chicago to the Anti-Imperialist Conference:  "Our country, right or wrong," he said. "When right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right."  Our country--its laws, traditions, and customs--give us our moral starting point.

They shape our perspective.  But the mission of a unit, the strategic plans of a nation, the vision of a racial group—these things must never be permitted to determine our perspective entirely.  We must seek to see further.  We must have the perspective, the ethical power of discrimination, and the prudence to know that standards exist according to which we can judge our country and its political and military officers, its politics and diplomacy, and its national security policies and decisions.  We must remember that keeping and putting our country "right" requires understanding of what right means; it requires a prudential knowledge of the practical truth which transcends culture.  Zerubbabel was correct, after all:  there is no injustice in truth.  Our task, politically and morally, is to ensure that justice and truth always coincide.


Bridges, Points, and Lines

            We will close with a few observations about ethics and "plane geometry."  There is a way to explain, briefly and pointedly, much of what we have said above. Imagine a bridge. On one side of the bridge are our beliefs.  On the other side of the bridge are our actions.  We know that to be just, our actions should be consistent with our beliefs.  If they aren't, we have failed.  We have been either moral cowards or hypocrites.  So: (1) We have to cross the bridge, "connecting" our beliefs with our actions.  But that is not enough.

            There are gravitational (and occasional transportational) pressures on the bridge, and it will collapse unless it has certain supports. The supports for our ethical bridge are our faith, family, customs, laws, friends, associations, education, and so on.  Suppose the supports are rotting or rotten.  We have a poor education or no family to speak of, or we are surrounded by unjust laws or by evil friends.  The supports to the bridge will not hold it up when we must walk from the side of (wise) beliefs to the side of actions.  So: (2.) We must have strong supports under our "ethical bridge."  These supports include the moral virtues of justice, courage, and temperance to assure that we do not turn aside into actions that are inconsistent with our beliefs.  These supports must be continually refreshed and renewed, even as real bridge supports must occasionally be re-worked to maintain their strength. But that is not enough.

            We assumed, above, "good" beliefs.  Even as real bridges forbid the passage of certain unwanted traffic for various engineering reasons, so our metaphorical bridge must forbid the passage of certain beliefs for ethical reasons.  The "bridgekeepers" are wise parents, family, friends, teachers, colleagues and so on who continually counsel us.  The connection of evil beliefs with evil actions--and the celebration of philosophical monsters such as Nietzsche--result only in a "bridge" over which pass convoys headed to death camps. So: (3) A good bridge between beliefs and actions demands prudent "bridgekeepers" who know the difference between wise and foolish, just and unjust, virtuous and vicious.  But that is probably not enough.

            Most people, after all, do not have the temperament and time for advanced theological and philosophical study.[27]  Much of what passes for wisdom often amounts to undigested morsels of folklore, received rules and guidelines, and gut-feelings or intuitions parading as eternal truth. That is not always bad, but it is by its nature at least unconsidered or, possibly, ill considered.  The general approach to ethics of most people is consequentialist or utilitarian.  Justice amounts to acting upon the answer to a simple, single question:  What offers the greatest benefit to the greatest number?   So: (4) Do what effects or brings about the most good to the most people.  But that is still not enough.

            Here is where "ethical plane geometry" enters the picture. "Do what offers the most good to the most people" makes great sense up to a point.  There must be a point beyond which we would be unwilling to go in some actions.  Are we willing to do anything to achieve something?  Or are there some things so important, so fundamental, so sacred, that we will not--we must not--transgress them to achieve something else?  So: (5) Do what offers the most good to the most people up to a point.  But that is not good enough.

            "In everything we do, however great or small," writes Tom Morris, "we should always be asking ourselves, 'In doing this, am I becoming the kind of person I want to be?'" For, "[w]henever you make a decision, whenever you act, you are never just doing, you are always becoming."[28]  The decisions we make reflect the truth of this bit of folklore—“We are what we do; we do what we are."  In every moral action we either develop or corrupt our relation to the Truth (and it is to the Truth that we must ultimately answer).  Making one good decision, establishing one point beyond which we will not go, is fine; but it is something we must continually do.  In making numerous decisions, and in establishing numerous points beyond which we will not go, we effectively create a line (a series of points).  That "line" is an assembly of the sacred and solemn points of our life. That line tells us that there principles we will not betray, people we will not abandon, things we will not do, concessions we will not make to achieve some goal.  Our lives are spent creating a line we will not cross.  This is the baseline of our character.  And in drawing that line, we recognize the universal need to discriminate:  there are wrong things and "wronger" things (which is why we may commit the prima facie wrong thing of killing in just war, rather than permitting the "wronger" thing of letting the Nazis conquer Europe and kill millions of innocents); and we recognize, too, the power of Truth, in which no injustice resides.  So: (6) The ethical line we draw, with the help of those who have gone before and to help those who will come after, is our bridge between conscientious belief and courageous action.  We have informed our conscience and thus formed our values on the basis of virtue.  We then understand what Abraham Lincoln said in February 1860:  "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it."  The bridge of prudence, built upon the support of justice, will carry virtuous beliefs into courageous action.


[1]Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (Boston:  St. Paul Books & Media, 1993), para. 7 (p. 17).

[2]As a very quick overview:  virtues are good habits of the intellect or the appetite that both make their possessor good and make his or her actions good.  Prudence is a virtue of the practical intellect which deliberates about available means to a good end, judges which is best, and directs that it be carried out.  Justice is a virtue of the will that disposes us to render to others their due.  Fortitude or courage is the virtue that disposes us to stand firm in the face of fear or difficulties and to act as prudence directs.  And temperance is the virtue that disposes us to resist the temptations due to pleasure that might cause us to deviate from the directions of prudence.  Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966) is a useful and accessible treatment of the cardinal virtues.

[3]Cf. Proverbs 19:5 and Acts 5:1-11.

[4]Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is justly the most famous work of deontological ethics.  It is short but very difficult; brilliant but very wrong.

[5]The classical statement of utilitarian ethics is John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism.  There are other forms of teleological ethics which reject the principle of utility.  The best known examples are laid out in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae.

[6]We believe that we must always love God and neighbor.  How we discharge our duties in those respects, however, can be difficult to determine.  There may also be a number of exceptionless negative precepts, such as “do not commit murder.”  We will discuss this possibility later.

[7] Although Malham M. Wakin does not use this noun in his writings, we infer the term from him.  See "The Ethics of Leadership I," in War, Morality, and the Military Profession, 2d ed., ed. M. M. Wakin (Boulder:  Westview Press, 1986), p. 195. General Wakin discusses universal moral obligations, which he properly says can conflict.  See note #10 below.

[8]The first point that should be made is technical, but critical.  The “greatest good” of which we speak is not limited to pleasure or utility, but includes the common good of the community circumscribed by our answer to the question of cui bono.  An accessible discussion of the common good, as contrasted with both private good and public good, can be found in Jacques Maritain’s The Person and the Common Good.

[9]One is again reminded of Maritain (1882-1973):  "[M]an is by no means for the state.  The State is for man."  Man and the State (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 13.

[10] Wakin illustrates this effectively.  Suppose you promise to meet your boss at noon for lunch.  On the way there, however, you see an accident, and you have the chance to help the victims--but it will make you late.  Do you violate your promise to your boss? You have the duty of keeping your word.  You have the duty of helping the victims.  Clearly, you should help the victims.  Circumstances, Wakin tells us, certainly do matter in making decisions--but that is not the same as situation ethics (which rarely admits of overarching principles).  We break our word in this case because reason tells us we have a higher obligation. That emphatically does not mean that henceforth we treat promise-keeping cavalierly; we still recognize it as a solemn obligation and indeed it is not our intention to break our word; it is merely a foreseen and regrettable outcome of our doing the right thing.  Thus, universal ethical obligations can be seen as neither absolute nor relative.


[12]The absolutist probably does have other options:  he could remain silent; he could try to create a diversion; he could attack the soldiers.  Of course, such actions are liable to convey all the information desired by the interrogators.

[13] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO:  Liguori, 1994), No. 2488 and No. 2489.  We should note that the Catechism does not commend lying.

[14]Ibid., No. 2408.

[15]The example is based upon a story by Bernard Williams as cited in Ed. L. Miller, Questions That Matter, 2d shorter edition (Boston:  McGraw-Hill, 1998), p. 395.

[16]Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1756.

[17]What then about our endorsement of theft in some extreme circumstances?  The tradition which we draw from holds that people have a right to the material goods needed to survive when there is enough to go around.  The Hebrew culture in which the Commandments were promulgated held the same thing.  One cannot really steal what one has a right to.

[18]See, for example, Department of the Army Field Manual 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare:  "A commander may not put his prisoners to death because their presence retards his movements or diminishes his power of resistance by necessitating a large guard, or by reason of their consuming supplies, or because it appears certain that they will regain their liberty through the impending success of their forces.  It is likewise unlawful for a commander to kill his prisoners on grounds of self-preservation, even in the case of commando or airborne operations . . . " (para. 85).  See also Anthony E. Hartle, Moral Issues in Military Decision Making (Lawrence:  University Press of Kansas, 1989), p. 75.

[19]As Air Force Pamphlet 110-31 (International Law--The Conduct of Armed Conflict and Air Operations) puts it:  "Physical or mental torture or any other form of coercion to secure information of any kind whatever is prohibited" (Art 13-3). For a different view, see Richard Marcinko, Rogue Warrior (New York:  Pocket Books, 1992), pp. 117-118.  One reviewer (David Murray) says that Marcinko "comes across as less the genuine warrior than a comic-book superhero." The New York Times Book Review, 19 April 1992, p. 12. See also Frederick Downs, The Killing Zone (New York:  W.W. Norton, 1978). One of my favorite books is David Donovan [Terry Turner], Once a Warrior King (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1985).  Downs and "Donovan" provide two first-person accounts of Vietnam War combat and ethical crises.

[20] So does that mean World War III would ensue, killing even more millions of American and Soviet citizens?  First, that outcome, although admittedly likely, was not certain whereas the death of the New Yorkers was certain.  Second, we cannot deliberately kill people to bring about good results--remember the American asked to shoot one hostage?  (All we have done here is to enlarge the numbers.) Third, we think there are times we must trust in God's providence and mercy.  And fourth, again, hard cases make bad law.

[21]Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, p. 10.

[22]As Servais Pinckaers says:  "Egoism also has the power to vitiate and twist the answers to all the questions we have been examining.  'I love' becomes, beneath the surface, 'I love myself' or 'I love to be loved' by God or neighbor.  'I seek happiness' is transformed into 'I seek my happiness' or 'I seek happiness for myself.'  'I look for truth' becomes 'I look for my truth, the truth that suits me' or indeed 'I make my own truth.' 'I want justice' means 'I want my justice, my rights,' or 'I do justice to myself.'  The distinctions are very subtle, because egoism uses the terms of love so as to give the appearance of it." The Sources of Christian Ethics, translated from the third edition by Mary Thomas Noble (Washington, D.C.:  Catholic University of America Press, 1995), p. 43.  See also p. 29.

[23]Tradition is critically important.  But it is not enough.  Tradition, for example, upheld slavery.  To reduce ethics to tradition is to imprison it in cultural relativism. There must be something beyond custom:  "If the object of the concrete action is not in harmony with the true good of the person, the choice of that action makes our will and ourselves morally evil, thus putting us in conflict with our ultimate end, the supreme good, God himself." John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, p. 72.  When human acts are ordered toward God, in keeping with the Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Modes of Responsibility, we have a means of judging the wisdom and the justice of those acts.

[24]John Kekes, Moral Wisdom and Good Lives (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 208.

[25]Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), pp. 73-74.  See also Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2411.

[26]Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2d ed. (Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1984),  p. 220.

[27]Neither do we mean to suggest that advanced study leads to wise action.  It should.  But it may not.  From Plato's Meno to the present, there has been a debate about teaching virtue.  In his later dialogues, Plato came to attribute more importance to habituation and the moral virtues, and Aristotle extended his thought in this respect.  But neither Plato nor Aristotle understood the importance of grace.  However important knowledge and virtue are, grace is required for us to act as we ought.

[28]Tom Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors (New York:  Holt, 1997), pp. 165, 164.